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Pictures in the Sky

[Written in August 2003 for the September issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2003 Peter de Jager.]

Our ability to recognize and take advantage of patterns is a symptom of our intelligence. In addition, the ability to see patterns where animals might see only chaos gives us the ability to predict and modify the future.

Let's start this discussion with a little test.

What's the next number in the series:

a) 3, 3, 5, 4, 4, 3, 5, 5, 4, 3 ...

Or this one?

b) 1, 1, 2, 4, 7 ...

These tests are used frequently on IQ tests to determine our intelligence. As such, they pose a few complications. First, there is the issue of cultural blindness. The first series is a very good example of a culturally biased test. If you think in a language other than English, your chances of solving this problem are significantly reduced. The next number in this series is 6. I'll leave it to the reader to determine why.

Of course there are other problems with these types of tests. Some people will even claim that the first series is a bit of a cheat because it's not dealing with numbers per se, but with other objects which are "converted" to numbers.

The second series is more typical of these types of tests. One answer is 11. Why? Think of differences and simple counting.

But—and here's the catch—the answer could also be 1 or b or 10. For it to be 1, I'd need to add in a modulo 10 function to the process; for it to be b, I could use hexadecimal notation; and it to be for 10, I'd need to use base 11.

It is possible for different people to assign wildly different patterns to the same situation. Which of these is the right one? Which of the discovered patterns is the most useful; the most appropriate; the most insightful?

In the movie A Beautiful Mind [2001], this ability to see patterns invisible to others is brilliantly used to demonstrate both John Nash's genius and his madness. In one scene he is able to see randomly named objects in the stars; in another he sees secret messages in newspaper text and magazines. The question arises: At what point does seeing a pattern become proof of insanity or of genius ... or does the line flutter and float from one side to the other?

If, after repeated exposure, we become aware of a pattern, we can use that knowledge to predict the future. For example, "Red sky in the morning, shepherds take warning": Get the flock into shelter early before it rains! Or if you lived on the Nile and noticed when the floods came each year, then you'd know when to plant and when to reap.

My examples have at least one more lesson to teach. When we see a pattern and then attempt to extend that pattern into the future to suggest what might happen tomorrow, next year or a lifetime from today, we err if we only consider one possible outcome.

Just as the next element of our second number series might be 11, 1, b or 10, any vision of the future should consist of a sheaf of possibilities. We might then rank these according to desirability, probability, or the most easily achievable through some visible, subtle or covert manipulation.

It's in the manipulation part where things get interesting. What must change in order for X to happen?

In "Where's My Flying Car?" I predicted we would never see flying cars (FCs) as they were envisioned in SF magazines. My thesis was that while we will get the technology right, people will never allow hundreds of FCs a minute to fly above their homes.

In the interest of generating interaction between myself and Voyageur readers, I'm announcing a little contest. In one paragraph (less than 100 words), describe what you think must change in order to make FCs a reality. (Ignore technological advances; focus on people issues.) I will select the three best/most-likely-to-succeed ideas as winners (I'll offer copies of my book Truth Picks as prizes) and reproduce those ideas in an upcoming column. Deadline for entries is September 28, 2003. E-mail your entry to pdejager@technobility.com.


Send feedback to Peter de Jager or (for publication in The Voyageur) to the Fanzine Editor.


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